Modern Language Aptitude Test
The Modern Language Aptitude Test was designed to predict a student’s likelihood of success and ease in learning a foreign language.
The Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) was developed to measure foreign language learning aptitude. Language learning aptitude does not refer to whether or not an individual can or cannot learn a foreign language (it is assumed that virtually everyone can learn a foreign language given adequate opportunity). According to John Carroll and Stanley Sapon, the authors of the MLAT, language learning aptitude refers to the “prediction of how well, relative to other individuals, an individual can learn a foreign language in a given amount of time and under given conditions.” The MLAT has primarily been used for adults in government language programs and missionaries, but it is also appropriate for students in grades 9 to 12 as well as college/university students so it is also used by private schools and school and clinical psychologists. Similar tests have been created for younger age groups. For example, the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery was designed for junior high and high school students while the MLAT-E is for children in grades 3 through 6.
John B. Carroll and Stanley Sapon are mainly responsible for the development of the MLAT. They designed the test as part of a five-year research study at Harvard University between 1953 and 1958. The initial purpose of developing the Modern Language Aptitude Test was to help the US Army find and train people who would learn foreign languages with ease.
After field testing many different kinds of verbal tasks, Carroll chose five tests that he felt worked well as a combination in predicting foreign language learning success in a variety of contexts. These tests were minimally correlated with one another, but used together they had demonstrated high predictive validity with respect to such criteria as language proficiency ratings and grades in foreign language classes.
The design of the MLAT also reflects a major conclusion of Carroll's research, which was that language learning aptitude was not a "general" unitary ability, but rather a composite of at least four relatively independent "specialized" abilities. The four aspects, or "components," of language learning aptitude that Carroll identified were phonetic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, rote learning ability and inductive language learning ability. In the article “The prediction of success in intensive foreign language training,” Carroll defined these components as follows:
|Phonetic coding ability||an ability to identify distinct sounds, to form associations between those sounds and symbols representing them, and to retain these associations;|
|Grammatical sensitivity||the ability to recognize the grammatical functions of words (or other linguistic entities) in sentence structures;|
|Rote learning ability for foreign language materials||the ability to learn associations between sounds and meanings rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations; and|
|Inductive language learning ability||the ability to infer or induce the rules governing a set of language materials, given samples of language materials that permit such inferences.|
The data used to calculate the statistical norms for the MLAT were collected in the fall of 1958. The MLAT was administered to approximately nineteen hundred students in grades nine to twelve and thirteen hundred students from ten colleges and universities. For adult norms, the MLAT was administered to about one thousand military and governmental enlisted persons and personnel. The test was given to the subjects before starting a language course or intensive training program. Their performance in the language program was later compared to their score on the MLAT to calculate the predictive validity of the test.
Sections of the Modern Language Aptitude Test
The MLAT consists of five sections, each one testing separate abilities.
- Number Learning
- This section is designed in part to measure the subject’s memory as well as an “auditory alertness” factor which would affect the subject’s auditory comprehension of a foreign language.
- Phonetic Script
- This section is designed to measure the subject’s sound-symbol association ability, which is the ability to learn correlations between a speech sound and written symbols.
- Spelling Clues/Hidden Words
- This highly speeded section is designed to test the subject’s vocabulary knowledge of English as well as his/her sound-symbol association ability.
- Words in Sentences
- This section is designed to measure the subject’s sensitivity to grammatical structure without using any grammatical terminology.
- Paired Associates
- This section is designed to measure the subject’s rote memorization ability, which is a typical component of foreign language learning.
Uses of the Modern Language Aptitude Test
The uses for the Modern Language Aptitude Test include selection, placement and diagnosis of learning abilities.
- The MLAT can be used to select individuals who show promise in learning foreign languages in order to justify the time and expense of placing them in a language training program.
- In situations where there is more than one class or group of students in a language training program or course, the students can be placed according to their language learning aptitude so that each class can work at the most beneficial pace.
- Diagnosis of Learning Abilities
- The MLAT can also be used in conjunction with other forms of evidence to diagnose a foreign language learning disability.
- Looking at an individual’s score on the different parts of the test can be help to match students’ learning styles with instructional approaches.
Modern Language Aptitude Test – Elementary
In 1967, Carroll and Sapon authored the Modern Language Aptitude Test – Elementary (EMLAT; more recently, MLAT-E). This was an adaptation of the adult version of the MLAT intended for younger students (grades 3 through 6). The MLAT-E is broken down into four parts, three of which are modified versions of the MLAT’s Part 3 - Hidden Words, Part 4 - Words in Sentences and Part 1 - Number Learning. It also includes a new section called Finding Rhymes, which tests the subject’s ability to hear speech sounds.
Carroll and Sapon suggest using the MLAT-E in ways similar to the MLAT. It can be used to select students who have the capability to excel in foreign language learning (and may be ready to start instruction earlier), provide a profile of strengths and weaknesses, place students with similar learning rates in the appropriate class, and start to build a history of language learning difficulty, which could be used in conjunction with other evidence to diagnose a foreign language learning disability.
Issues of Debate
One issue taken with the MLAT is that it does not include any measure of motivation. Motivation can be a powerful factor; low motivation may cause poor performance in a language course or training program despite a high score on an aptitude test like the MLAT. Alternatively, a relatively low score on an aptitude test combined with high motivation to learn a language may result in average or even above average performance because of a student putting more time and effort into the language program. Accordingly, proper use of the MLAT would be to use it as one part of a more comprehensive assessment of the learner, or use the test in a setting where motivation is known to be uniformly high. In response to this issue, Paul Pimsleur developed the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB), which includes a section that assesses motivation in examinees.
Another issue taken with using language aptitude tests like the MLAT is that they are not directly helpful to individuals who are required to learn a language regardless of their language learning abilities. According to John Carroll, language learning aptitude is relatively stable over an individual’s lifetime, so if an individual scores poorly on the MLAT, there is no proven method to increase their language learning aptitude if they must learn a language. One way the MLAT could be helpful in this situation is to indicate that more time learning the language will be needed relative to someone who received a high score on the MLAT. It can also assist them by showing which learning strategies that they use best.
The age of the test along with its norms is another area of concern. The test was developed in 1953-58 and the norms were calculated with data collected in 1958. The audio-lingual teaching methods used with the norming subjects have been replaced by a more communicative teaching method. In 1998, research conducted by Madeline Ehrman, the Director of Research, Evaluation and Development at the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, produced validity coefficients at approximately the same levels as the original validity coefficients from 1958. Research from Leila Ranta (Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Alberta) as well as Harley and Hart (with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto) has shown an association with good language analytic ability and good language learners in a communicative learning environment (2002).
- Carroll, John B. and Stanley Sapon. Modern Language Aptitude Test: Manual 2002 Edition. Bethesda, MD: Second Language Testing, Inc., 2002.
- Carroll, John B. and Stanley M. Sapon. Modern Language Aptitude Test – Elementary: Manual, 2002 Edition. Rockville, MD: Second Language Testing, Inc., 2002.
- Ehrman, M. “The Modern Language Aptitude Test for predicting learning success and advising students.” Applied Language Learning, Vol. 9, pp. 31-70.
- Harley, B. & D. Hart. “Language Aptitude and Second Language Proficiency in Classroom Learners of Different Starting Ages.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19 (1997): 379-400.
- Harley, B. & D. Hart. “Age, Aptitude and Second Language Learning on a Bilingual Exchange.” Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning. Ed. P. Robinson, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002. 301-330.
- “Modern Language Aptitude Test.” Second Language Testing, Inc. 2000-2001. SLTI. 27 June, 2006 http://www.2lti.com.
- Ranta, L. “The Role of Learners’ Analytic Abilities in the Communicative Classroom.” Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning. Ed. P. Robinson, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2002. 159-180.
- Stansfield, Charles W. and Daniel J. Reed. “The Story Behind the Modern Language Aptitude Test: An Interview With John B. Carroll (1916-2003).” Language Assessment Quarterly 1.1 (2004): 43-56.
- Stansfield, Charles W. and Daniel J. Reed. Modern Language Aptitude Test – Elementary: Spanish Version: Manual 2005 Edition. Rockville, MD: Second Language Testing Foundation, 2005.
- Stansfield, Charles W. “Carroll, John Bissell.” Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics. Ed. B. Spolsky. Amsterdam; New York: Elsevier, 1999.